On Globalisation and the University

I: on globalisation

In his Globalization: nine theses on our epoch, William Robinson argues that “activists and scholars have tended to underestimate the systemic nature of the changes involved in globalisation, which is redefining all the fundamental reference points of human society and social analysis, and requires a modification of all existing paradigms.” In the systemic changes that are driven by and which drive globalisation, we are increasingly witnessing a transnational conflict between capital and both an impoverished labour force in the global South, and a labour force that is being increasingly proletarianised in the global North. Robinson argues that this conflict is incubated through and exacerbated by technologically-mediated innovations in capitalist production processes that increasingly discipline labour. Disciplinary practices include: threats of outsourcing; using technology and efficiencies in production to drive down wages; enforcing changes to terms of employment; attrition or privatisation of social welfare; the use of technology to monitor work; and increasingly deflationary economic policies which attack standards of living for all-bar social elites. The ability of capital to discipline labour is critical because, as Simon Clarke has noted, as capitalism restructures itself, the conditions for the renewed production of surplus value is set by dominating and restructuring labour power and means of production, rather than by stimulating consumption.

For Robinson the mechanisms through which transnational capital is hatched out of national capitals in the global North is a central theme of globalisation. He sees a corollary in the capture by transnational elites of the state apparatus for control in the global North and the attempt to do so in the global South. He then argues in a discussion paper that in understanding the mechanics of capitalism in its neoliberal stage, and in shaping responses to it, it is critical to analyse how globalisation is “a qualitatively new transnational stage in the on-going evolution of world capitalism”. This echoes Ellen Meiksins Wood’s argument that

we’re living in a moment when, for the first time, capitalism has become a truly universal system…. Capitalism is universal also in the sense that its logic – the logic of accumulation, commodification, profit-maximisation, competition – has penetrated almost every aspect of human life and nature itself.

Here capital needs other economic systems, including public sector spaces, as soil and medium for accumulation, with new roles for nation states under the logic of competition, in policing order and law, and in setting a clear economic direction.

II: defining a new epoch

For Robinson, globalisation as a new epoch in the history of capitalism is made up of four key strands. These strands need to be applied to specific contexts, like the terrain of higher education and the impact of technology on it, in order that a meaningful critique can be generated.

  1. The first strand is the rise of truly transnational capital, pivoting around an integrated global production and financial system. Thus, we witness the growth of transnational, educational corporations like Pearson, and the involvement of the investment banking arms of Goldman Sachs, or of consultants like McKinsey, or of outsourcing corporations like Capita, in opening-up education, and the use of technologically-driven services to commoditise the space further. Through these integrated systems, education providers are tied into networks of defence, security, finance and policing activity, and processes of outsourcing and change management that are driven by the need to extract surplus value.
  2. The second strand is the coalescence of a new class group which Robinson describes as “the hegemonic fraction at a world level of global class structure”. This transnational capitalist class is grounded in global markets and circuits of accumulation. This differentiates it from the hegemonic fraction of the previous epoch of capitalism, which focused upon national markets and circuits of capital. Inside higher education we witness a cadre of public administrators, for example in the UK Department for Education, actively courting and working with global corporations and management consultants to implement social education policy.
  3. The third strand is the rise of “a transnational state apparatus”, which forms a loose coalition of institutions which is comprised of all super-national, transnational and international institutions, for example the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank, the North American Free Trade Association and so on. In those nation-states that are in crisis, like Greece, Italy, Spain and Ireland, the structures of the nation state are being transnationalised so that they relate to and underpin an emerging transnational structure. Education cannot escape this locus of control.
  4. The fourth strand is the appearance of “new forms of global inequality that cut across the old north-south and nation state lines that group new types of transnational social inequality”. In this, technologies are being used to help reconfigure institutions and capitalist relations of production, in order to generate new configurations of global power that operate transnationally, and access to technologies reinforces these systemic inequalities.

As Robinson argues, “[w]e need to understand these things”, if we are to analyse how our work inside the University is co-opted for the extraction of value by transnational elites, which operate inside-and-against national politico-jurisdictional boundaries through networks of corporations, think tanks, administrative institutions, private equity firms etc.. Simply thinking in terms of learner’s rights, or personalisation, or digital literacy, or critical pedagogy is meaningless without situating that [whatever] in the context of globalised capitalist relations of production.

This process of understanding might take our use of technology inside the University and relate it to the offensive undertaken by capital in its post-Fordist, neoliberal phase, where it breaks free of nation state constraints on accumulation, and especially the relationship between capital and labour that generated a social welfare and social democratic model of the second-half of the Twentieth Century. This model included the idea of the University as a public good, or as a publically/charitably-funded, governed and regulated good, which could respond to local or national need. However, it restricted the ability of capital to drive the rate of accumulation and profit at an appropriate level, and as such capital sought to restructure global production and consumption processes, in-part through technological innovation. As George Lambie has noted:

It is important to understand that it is not so much the geographical distribution of labour that is the problem for workers, but the global restructuring of the relationship between capital and labour… Labour is [now] a factor of production that, like all others, must be utilised in a manner that maximises profits.

Thus, we see a global break with the need to be responsive to any social democratic framework, in the face of a new, transnational model of accumulation that is dominated by finance capital.

Robinson argues that this new model has four critical outcomes.

First, “new capital-labor relations… based on a cheapening of labor, on the notion of flexible labor or deregulated and de-unionized labor, becomes now the general, worldwide model.” Thus, we witness hyper-exploitation inside factories in the global South that support the economies of the global North, alongside the disciplining of technologised and service-sector labour in the global North through threatened outsourcing or the commodification and leverage of core or developmental skills. Lambie has argued that:

If the post-war Keynesian consensus produced the Fordist worker, globalisation has resulted in a ‘Walmart-isation’ of labour, typified by part-time, non-unionised, depoliticised, disempowered and quiescent employees with few benefits, rights or opportunities to influence the conditions dictated by capital.

At issue here is the extent to which higher education in the global North underpins that on-going commodification process, either in new forms as it promotes innovations around personalisation and accreditation, like badges, digital literacy etc., or through its standard structures carried in distance learning, internationalisation strategies etc.. One might ask how such practices form a means of further restructuring a flexible, globalised regime of labour relations.

Second, there is “a dramatic round of extensive and intensive expansion of capitalism itself”, so that there is no outside of the system of value-extraction, enclosure and accumulation. This includes states that held out against full integration in the circuits of capital, like China, and pressure on revolutionary states such as Nicaragua, Venezuela, Cuba and Angola. Thus, we see the current vogue for universities in the global North to commodity-dump cheap educational products through MOOCs or distance learning, or to extract high-level skills through internationalisation strategies, or to enable capital to reproduce its structures through educational “outreach” in the global South. A recent Bain Consulting report on A world awash with money noted:

By using distance-learning technologies to “export” higher education, leading universities in the advanced economies can accelerate the training of the home-grown specialists the emerging-market economies will need. And by “importing” the talent of engineers, managers, physicians and other highly skilled professionals from companies in developed markets, businesses in the emerging markets will not need to wait a generation before their own education systems can produce the skilled workforce they require.

However, we also see the intensive expansion of capitalism through aggressive privatisation of the previously public spheres like education. This also means that we are increasingly witnessing the conversion of the cognitive capital produced inside the University, like the human genome or services based on learning analytics or drone research, into accumulation and the commodity-form, driven by intellectual property rights. Thus, the University is used to enable the geographic spread of transnational capitalism, but it also enables capital’s circuits to be deepened through the commodification of intellectual life inside new terrains.

Third, a global legal and regulatory structure is created in order to facilitate the emerging global circuits of accumulation. Thus, not only does the World Trade Organization catalyse multilateral, bilateral, and global free trade agreements, but the IMF and the World Bank are recast in order to underwrite and catalyse structural adjustment on a global stage. This is critical because under austerity policies, the global market has a declining ability to absorb global economic output, which then stresses the system through under-consumption/over-accumulation. With no massive public works and limited focus on war as a means for the State to absorb surplus value, we witness a focus on redistributing wealth through quantitative easing and privatisation from the poor to the wealthy. One might also view the underwriting of student loans as a new, derivative-driven bubble, the role of universities in on-line strategies that include MOOCs, and the engagement of private providers in the global educational space, as mechanisms for meeting the production/consumption gap in output.

Fourth is the “neo-liberal structural adjustment programs which seek to create the conditions for the free operations of the emerging transnational capital across borders and within each country, so that capital, particularly emerging transnational capital, is unhindered by both state borders and by regulations within states.” As I argue elsewhere

Beyond their capitalisation by transnational networks to attempt either the restructuring of the University or the release of the surplus intellectual value contained inside it for entrepreneurialism, technological innovations are also aimed at maintaining an increase in the rate of profit. Hence the role of transnational educational corporations like Pearson, or of transantional finance capital, like Goldman Sachs, in the privatisation of higher education, with technology as a crack in that idea that the University might be publically-financed, governed and regulated.

Thus, in the range of global educational initiatives, that encompass MOOCs, global digital literacy, cloud-based innovations and outsourcing, internationalisation strategies, data mining, mobile learning etc., the key is to understand how technology-driven innovations relate to the globally-hegemonic fraction of transnational, finance capital. This is critical because these innovations are not outside the circuits or cycles of globally mobile capital. Thus, these innovations further reduce the technical constraints or barriers to the reproduction of capital and its valorisation/accumulation processes, just as they revolutionise the transportation, interaction, production and consumption of individuals with (intellectual or cognitive) commodities/products.

III: a new epoch as crisis

These outcomes are clearly linked to the on-going crisis of capitalism in its neoliberal phase, and are connected to over-production and the falling rate of profit, which in-turn catalyses a desperate rush for new markets. Simon Clarke has argued that over-production occurs because capital drives beyond its natural limits, leading to a crisis of disproportionality in the production process made worse by credit bubbles and commerce, so that it becomes a general crisis of overproduction. Thus, the greater the mass of surplus value to be released as commodities, the more frantic is the search for new markets, and the more vulnerable is accumulation to disruption when it confronts the limits of profitability, for instance in falling demand. We might also witness this in the production/consumption of higher education as credit-fuelled study and in the recalibration of universities as businesses that underwrite a Government’s Industrial Strategy. This in-turn risks a crisis of disproportionality/profits in the circuits of educational provision.

In these processes of transnational valorisation/accumulation, Robinson argues that:

the network nature and structure of the global economy, organized as subcontracting and outsourcing chains which are quite endless, which cross national borders and so forth and also as a network structure in the sense that a network is where a segment can attach to a network, and by that attachment, it is connected to all kinds of other elements and other forms of organizations it would not be networked to literally and then it can detach and reattach itself to other networks. It’s more like a global spider web, except again that you have power being centralized, exercised through decentralized networks but concentrated.

This is again important in assessing both the role of the University in structuring those networks, but also in revealing how technologies are used to amplify the mechanisms through which the University can be further enmeshed in the circuits of capital. A corollary of this is seen in the recalibration of the relationships between academic management and academic labour through financialisation, debt and indentured study, the idea of student-as-global-consumer, and the use of technology to discipline working practices. It is impossible to assess this process properly without thinking through the relationships between the University and transnational finance capital, and the idea that the University is being increasingly subjected to pressure for structural adjustment. This, in turn, includes the ways in which what Robinson calls “the transnational state” sets primary and secondary policy that creates the conditions for globalised capital accumulation. In the UK this includes the Coalition’s restructuring of secondary education curricula, the momentum for performance management of teachers, the removal of VAT exemption for shared services, raising the cap on student fees, using student number controls and core/marginal provision to drive change, and co-hosting educational technology symposia with corporations like Goldman Sachs.

Thus, the State is now a key instrument of the global capitalist system in creating an environment in which capital can reproduce itself and in widening and deepening the interests of global capital over national capital and national labour forces or the unemployed. Education and the place of the University has to be seen in light of this globalised social polarisation and social reproduction, and the increasing levels of global inequality that follow in its wake, which includes falling living standards and the extension of precarious working and living conditions in the face of austerity in the global North. As Robinson cautions us

[This is]not a crisis for the capitalist system unless those that are starving to death or those that don’t quite know how they will be able to survive actually resist those conditions… If half or two-thirds of humanity just quietly starved to death, there wouldn’t be a crisis of the system, only for those people starving. But since they are resisting, it is a systemic crisis.

Thus, Robinson notes that we increasingly face “a crisis of legitimacy in the sense that states are facing legitimization crises everywhere–that’s the famous crisis of governability.” The view that market mechanisms are the sole arbiter of social relationships and that efficiency in the name of the accumulation of capital are our only ways of constructing a meaningful life-world, is increasingly under attack. Witness the students in Occupation at Sussex University stating that:

Perhaps most importantly the decision to bring private providers into the education sector reflects a larger ideological push by this and previous governments to marketise education as a consumer good. For management at Sussex this is certainly a continuation of departmental teaching and university-wide job cuts over the past 5 years under the guise of “deficit-cutting”. We stand firmly against the segregation of our campuses along producer/consumer lines and reject this false dichotomy. Moreover, we reject the way in which outsourcing further segregates different members of the campus community, whose job statuses, though necessarily complementary in practice, become suddenly dissociated financially and institutionally, leading to a complete breakdown of the social cohesion intrinsic to any healthy and normally functioning organisation. We wholly reject the undemocratic and unaccountable structures and procedures which this management has procured in order to force its agenda on members of the Sussex campus community. We reassert that Education is a public good that is and should remain free of perverse market incentives in every aspect of its provision.

IV: capital’s response to the crisis and Robinson’s Nine Theses

It is useful to state Robinson’s Nine Theses, as an analytical tool for framing what might be done to resist transnational capital.

First, the essence of the process is the replacement for the first time in the history of the modern world system, of all residual pre (or non) –capitalist production relations with capitalist ones in every part of the globe.

Second, a new ‘social structure of accumulation’ is emerging which, for the first time in History, is global.

Third, this transnational agenda has germinated in every country of the world under the guidance of hegemonic fractions of national bourgeoisies.

Fourth, observers search for a new global hegemon and posit a tri-polar world of European, American, and Asian economic blocs. But the old nation-state phase of capitalism has been superseded by the transnational phase of capitalism.

Fifth, the ‘brave new world’ of global capitalism is profoundly anti-democratic.

Sixth, ‘poverty amidst plenty’, the dramatic growth under globalisation of socioeconomic inequalities and of human misery, a consequence of the unbridled operation of transnational capital, is worldwide and generalised.

Seventh, there are deep and interwoven gender, ethnic and racial dimensions to this escalating global poverty and inequality.

Eighth, there are deep contradictions in emergent world society that make uncertain the very survival of our species – much less mid- to long-tem stabilisation and viability of global capitalism – and portend prolonged global social conflict.

Ninth, stated in highly simplified terms, much of the left world-wide is split between two camps.

Thus, the globalised terrain upon which universities now exist as competing capitals, forces them to:

  • become efficient in service-provision, for example through outsourcing, privatisation or cloud-based services;
  • respond to indentured/debt-fuelled student life and expectations, linked to personalisation, employability, bring your own device;
  • compete internationally either through traditional mechanisms like overseas campus provision, or through virtual, technocratic innovation;
  • drive mobility and flexibility as a means of leveraging surplus value from employees;
  • engage with high-risk, financialised growth strategies, for example medium/high yield bonds;
  • connect to the research and development imperatives of globalised capital for securing new terrains for accumulation, including data mining and learning analytics, or drone-based/makerspace-type research;
  • drive the reskilling of global labour as a commodified workforce through employability strategies that are underwritten by concepts like badges and digital literacy; and
  • connect to the politico-jurisdictional imperatives of globalised capital by suppressing academic dissent, or investing in security/policing functions.

This is important because as Robinson’s analysis enables us to see, the University is enclosed by the realities of transnational capital, through which we witness the complete commodification of social life based around segmented structures and hierarchies. Here, the relations of the capitalist economy structure all spheres of life, and a set of mutually-reinforcing social, economic and political institutions and cultural and ideological norms fuse with and facilitate a new period of capitalist accumulation. The cultural/ideological component here is set in-part through education and technology, and is based upon consumerism and cut-throat individualism rather than collective well-being. Through the focus on mobility, flexibility and employability, and the recalibration of student life through debt, collective action is confronted and marginalised by a focus on personal aspiration. As a result, the University becomes a node in a global productive structure with a concentration of services, knowledge, finance and technology in the global North and of productive labour in the global South. As Robinson notes, “The dominant global culture penetrates, perverts and reshapes cultural institutions, group identities and mass consciousness.”

As I noted elsewhere in discussing academic exodus, pace John Holloway, the ideological, political drive towards, for instance, indentured study and debt, internationalisation, privatisation and outsourcing means that the University has little room for manoeuvre in resisting the enclosing logic of competition and in arguing for a socialised role for higher education. This means that the internal logic of the University is prescribed by the rule of money, which forecloses on the possibility of creating transformatory social relationships:

The argument against this is that the constitutional view isolates the [University] from its social environment: it attributes to the [University] an autonomy of action that it just does not have. In reality, what the [University] does is limited and shaped by the fact that it exists as just one node in a web of social relations. Crucially, this web of social relations centres on the way in which work is organised. The fact that work is organised on a capitalist basis means that what the [University] does and can do is limited and shaped by the need to maintain the system of capitalist organisation of which it is a part. Concretely, this means that any [University] that takes significant action directed against the interests of capital will find that an economic crisis will result and that capital will flee from the [University] territory.

Thus, we need to see the University as a business recalibrated inside the structural power of fully mobile transnational capital. This is disciplinary and based upon dense networks of supranational institutions and relationships, alongside the co-option of national jurisdictions for: fiscal and monetary policies that enable macro-economic stability; creating an infrastructure for global economic activity; and social control. For Robinson, capital needs state power rather than the nation state, which acting as the neoliberal state becomes an agent for wringing concessions from global labour.

V: what is to be done?

Critiquing the role of transnational corporations in controlling assets and trade, and in driving speculation and speculative bubbles that threaten livelihoods and lives, is critical in understanding how economic power drives political action. Witness this report from Bain Consulting on A world awash in money

As fluid as the movement of capital has become thanks to information technology and high-speed communications, the barriers that impede its flow to and among the capital-hungry developing markets will remain formidable. Investors will continue to favor the advanced markets, which are well endowed with the “trust architecture”—strong property rights protections, reliable legal systems and institutional depth—that owners of capital value.

Under the conditions outlined above the content of university life is driven by the realities of globalisation that form a socio-cultural space that reinforces disempowerment, in spite of rhetoric about learner’s rights, social justice or mobility, or economic equality. What is worse is that the University risks becoming a node in the permanent structural violence that is visited against the majority of the world’s poor, ostensibly in the global South. Internationalisation strategies, MOOCs, intellectual property and patent law, structural adjustment, exporting mobile learning, all become circuits through which capital is accumulated from the South. This is continually restructured through corporate management, the store of capital in spaces that service tax havens for the North, and the location of centres of technology and finance in the North. However, the threat of a new international division of labour is also realised as the immiseration of the middle classes in the North as they are indentured or threatened with outsourcing, and as their futures are asset-stripped and accumulated by transnational elites.

Robinson argues that the left has two responses. These are: first, the neo-Keynesian approach that seeks rapprochement with capital, based on social democracy and redistributive justice, in order to make it work ethically; second, those who see capitalism as inherently wicked and to be rejected/resisted without working through a coherent socialist alternative to the transnational phase of capitalism. In developing a set of possible alternatives that move beyond these positions, he argues that:

we should harbour no illusions that global capitalism can be tamed or democritised. This does not mean that we should not struggle for reform within capitalism, but that all such struggle should be encapsulated in a broader strategy and programme for revolution against capitalism. Globalisation places enormous constraints on popular struggles and social change in any one country or region. The most urgent task is to develop solutions to the plight of humanity under a savage capitalism liberated from the constraints that could earlier be imposed on it through the nation state. An alternative to global capitalism must therefore be a transnational popular project… The popular mass of humanity must develop a transnational class consciousness and a concomitant political protagonism and strategies that link the local to the national and the national to the global.

Thus, it is possible to see cracks in the contradictions of global capitalism, and to develop popular alternatives, like the range of social centres, or co-operative alternatives, or occupations that form oppositional moments to specific issues, but these need viable socio-economic alternatives to sustain them. This is a form of Gramscian mass intellectuality, whereby counter-hegemonic positions are developed and nurtured through solidarity actions. These counter-hegemonic positions need to be grounded in a political economy that reflects a socialised, rather than privatised globalisation; a globalisation from below that both demands global solidarity actions and is based on participatory practices, like general assemblies or associational democracy.

Robinson offers the possibility that alternatives might include: “some type of global Keynesianism, a global redistributive project, a global reform capitalism”; “global fascism” as a reactionary political project focused on coercion, and the militarisation and the masculinisation of popular culture and of social relations; or “a global collapse of civilization, a degeneration of civilization. And again, we’ve seen such outcomes throughout history when no social force can stabilize a particular system, when a civilization cannot resolve its internal contradictions”. More hopefully, he argues for “a global 21st century socialism” infused democratically, with examples that emerge from the co-operative movement in South America, in Venezuela and Cuba.

Critical in the development of a viable alternative is Robinson’s idea that “we always make our own collective history and so the future is never predetermined.” Thus, Ellen Meiksins Wood states:

We really can begin to look the world not as a relationship between what’s inside and what’s outside capitalism, but as the working out of capitalism’s own internal laws of motion. And that might make it easier to see the universalization of capitalism not just as a measure of success but as a source of weakness… It can only universalize its contradictions, its polarizations between rich and poor, exploiters and exploited. Its successes are also its failures.’

Crucially then, there is a role for those who labour inside the University in revealing the systemic nature of globalised capital in co-opting all of human existence for profit-maximisation, growth strategies, and accumulation. Moreover, there is an imperative for connecting critique to the mechanisms through which capitalism in its neoliberal phase increasingly consumes and destroys humanity and nature. As Lambie argues, revealing these mechanisms highlights how the family, community and workplace are eroded, and how social welfare is damaged, leading to precarious or vulnerable futures. Thus, the connection of academic critique to the mechanisms through which austerity reproduces and extends the power of transnational elites may reveal the true class position of global labour, including those who regard themselves as the educated middle class. In this, the development of solidarity actions grounded in mass intellectuality is critical.

From inside the University, those solidarity actions might be focused upon developing critiques of the following.

  1. The global processes of labour arbitrage, whereby technology is used to deskill and discipline global labour, including inside the academy. This stands against the ideal of many educators for the democratic agendas of digital literacy or learner’s rights.
  2. How transnational capital uses the global processes of competition and free trade agreements to discipline transnational labour, through the use of cloud technologies and outsourced services, through workplace monitoring, and increasingly friable labour conditions.
  3. How globalised, neoliberal cultural norms emerge from the objective conditions of capitalist work, and the everyday reality of those objective conditions for those who work in the global South and whose work in the global North is proletarianised. This includes the ways in which universities reinforce those objective conditions and act as institutions of the state in underpinning the agency of transnational finance capital, like investment banks, management consultancies, technology firms, private equity etc..
  4. How universities focus their research and development on social need that is defined locally rather than amplifying global transnational value extraction.
  5. Shining a light on models of accumulation that are riven with new forms of imperialism, and capital flows from the global South to the securitised, debt-driven global North.
  6. Developing mechanisms for understanding how the tensions that are revealed in the high levels of debt-to-GDP on both national and global scales might be resolved, or how alternative value forms and social relationships beyond a currency that is underpinned by oil might be developed.

Key is describing and deliberating the relationships between the University and specific social forces that might be used to catalyse a new political consciousness. At issue is how the University and academic labour might resist co-option on a global scale, in order to support those social forces that might fight for a different form of valorisation and for policies that are based on social need as the central development strategy of the State.

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